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Horizon League Championship: Hot shooting leads Northern Kentucky to second NCAA Tournament in three years

The Norse shot the lights out as they cruised to another Horizon League title.

NCAA Basketball: Northern Kentucky at Texas A&M C. Morgan Engel-USA TODAY Sports

For the second time in three years, the Northern Kentucky Norse are Horizon League champions. The Norse went wire to wire against top-seeded Wright State en route to a 77-66 victory to seal their second NCAA Tournament trip since making the transition to Division I in 2012-13.

Riding the emotional momentum that followed Monday night’s buzzer-beating win over Oakland, the Norse came out with energy and set the tone early. The catalyst to the early success was Tyler Sharpe, whose personal 9-0 run helped the Norse go up double digits five minutes into the game. Wright State’s Loudon Love struggled early on as the Norse defense made his life difficult by forcing tough shots and turnovers.

The Norse were particularly hot from three, hitting six of their first eight tries from deep. Zaynah Robinson was a perfect 3-of-3 off the bench, and Jalen Tate also knocked in a pair en route to his 12-point first half. Wright State didn’t have the same luck as the Raiders went just 4-of-13 from distance in the first half.

At one point, the Norse had built a 36-18 lead and it looked like the game could have been teetering on getting out of hand. Wright State was able to answer with a 10-4 run of their own, and a deep three by Cole Gentry right before the halftime buzzer cut the Northern Kentucky lead to 44-34 at the break. All things considered, it could have been a lot worse. In the previous two meetings between the two teams, the team that trailed at halftime went on to win the game. However, 10 points was the largest lead either team has had at break over the last two seasons.

Monday nights’ hero - Drew McDonald - set the tone out of the locker room despite scoring only two points and dealing with foul trouble in the first half. The Norse’s all-time leading scorer opened the second frame with an and-one layup and a three, while also frustrating Love on the defensive end on Wright State’s first couple of possessions. The sophomore big couldn’t get anything going against the Norse double teams and contests at the rim.

As was the case in the first half, the Norse were hot from deep. This time it was Dantez Walton knocking in a pair of triples to extend the lead back to 16, making NKU 11-of-18 from deep up to that point. Whenever it appeared that Wright State was going to chip away at the deficit, Northern Kentucky answered. When the Norse have it going, their ceiling is higher than any other team in the conference. Tuesday was one of those nights.

With roughly six minutes to play, a McDonald fadeaway stretched the Norse lead to 20 points. With the way Wright State was struggling to score, the only thing in the Norse’s way was the clock. The few buckets late led to the final 77-66 margin, but it was never that close down the stretch.

Some nights, it really just depends on who makes shots and who doesn’t. Northern Kentucky executed their offense and got good looks all night, and as a result shot over 50 percent from the floor and went 12-of-21 from three-point range. Wright State could only muster 37 percent shooting from the floor, and an abysmal 7-of-24 showing from deep ultimately doomed the Raiders.

Northern Kentucky should be in good position come Selection Sunday in regards to seeding. The Norse are a a borderline top-100 team, and could probably warrant a 13 or 14 seed depending on how other conference tournaments shake out. It’s another step for a program that continues to build a mid-major powerhouse.